On February 21, 1996, 17-year-old Danny Caldwell was shot in the head in a house in Hampton, Virginia. Caldwell and three others, including his 15-year-old friend Ricky Cullipher, were smoking marijuana in the known drug house.
Cullipher told the police that Caldwell had picked up the gun, which belonged to one of the others in the room, put a bullet in the chamber, spun it and held it to his head and pulled the trigger in a game of Russian roulette. The two others in the room gave similar statements.
Caldwell did not die, but was left brain-damaged and in a coma. On May 15, 1997, when his mother, sitting next to his hospital bed, asked who shot him, Caldwell wrote “Ricky” on his mother’s hand.
Police then brought Cullipher in for questioning. Cullipher, a troubled teen with an IQ of 71, confessed to shooting Caldwell during an interrogation without a parent present.
When the trial began in February 1997, Cullipher’s attorney, George L. Smith, requested a continuance because a key witness named La Toya Reeder, who was one of those in the room when Caldwell was shot, failed to appear in court. The prosecutor said that Reeder had nothing to add to the case and the defense attorney acquiesced because he had failed to investigate what Reeder might say. In fact, as the prosecutor knew, Reeder would have testified that Caldwell shot himself.
Cullipher was convicted by a judge on February 12, 1997 following a two-hour bench trial. Cullipher’s attorney did not object to his client being tried as an adult, did virtually no pre-trial preparation and did not review Caldwell’s medical records.
After the trial, Cullipher’s family fired Smith and hired another attorney who obtained several hearings on motions for reconsideration, but all were denied. About 11 months after the conviction, Cullipher was sentenced as an adult to 20 years, 14 of them suspended, on a charge of malicious wounding plus another consecutive term of three years in prison on a charge of using a firearm in commission of a felony.
Cullipher filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court and on May 24, 2001, a federal judge ruled that Cullipher’s trial attorney, who had been disbarred in 2000, was ineffective and set aside the conviction. The judge cited 15 reasons, including that Smith failed to review the prosecution file, failed to interview any witnesses, failed to challenge Cullipher’s confession and failed to discover that available medical evidence would have raised suspicions about Caldwell’s ability to remember how he got shot.
That same day, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Cullipher was released from prison.
– Maurice Possley